By Terence Dooley
The trajectory of Darren Barker’s career could have come straight from the pages of a movie script; the popular Barnet-based middleweight has shouldered tragedy, setbacks and niggling injuries as well as a being the victim of a cowardly out-of-the-ring assault when trying to break up a street scuffle last June.
A group of men set about Barker after he tried to stop them attacking someone else, the fighter overcame the resulting injures but could have easily been damaged for life after the sickening incident.
Darren has also had to overcome personal tragedy, his younger brother Gary, himself a promising boxer, died in an automobile accident in 2006, an event that left Darren grief-stricken and which prompted a ten-month break from the sport.
Barker returned to action in October 2007, he has since racked up eight straight wins as well as the Commonwealth, British and EBU crowns, his fine recent form has reaped a reward in the shape of a challenge to consensus kingpin Sergio Martinez.
“About five weeks ago it all started getting serious but to be fair it began when I first sat down with Matchroom,” revealed Barker. “I told them there and then that if the fight ever had a chance of being made they should grab it with both hands. It is a fight I really fancied.”
Barker jetted over to New York to formally announce the fight last month, coming face-to-face with his foe for the first time in front of a healthy media turnout. Barker, though, believes that the experience will be meaningless unless he carries out his promise of wresting the belt from ‘Maravilla’.
Saying, “It felt unbelievable to be honest. I started boxing as a twelve-year-old kid, you dream of a fight of this magnitude over the years so it was great but that stuff is only fifty percent of it. Unless I go in there and beat him the press conferences will just be a memory – I want to do the business.”
There had been a lack of trash talk on both sides, ‘Dazzling’ feels that recent pre-fight verbal feuds have justified the saying that, ‘Empty vessels make the most noise’, as the bouts themselves have failed to catch fire. In contrast, John Murray and Kevin Mitchell talked the talk and walked the walk recently, forcing a revaluation of whether excessive hot air sets the combatants up for a fall if they do not deliver.
“I think so,” mused Barker when asked if his meeting with Martinez will be politely discussed, brutally waged. “Kevin and John produced a great fight, myself and Martinez are professional in the sense that we’re boxing people. There’s no need for bad mouthing, it is like a lot of people try to hide behind that. There’s a lot of respect there so we’ll let our fists do the talking.”
HBO will televise in the US, Sky are expected to do the same here in the UK. Despite skepticism from a few US fans, Barker believes he thoroughly deserves this opportunity.
“It was nice to fly out to New York and let people know who I am, what I’m about and how determined I am. A lot of people probably thought I’d taken the fight for a payday, that is not the case, I wouldn’t do that to myself and all the work I’ve put in over seventeen years just to sell out. I’ve worked so hard for this,” declared the six-footer.
Adding: “My family, the press and myself are telling the public that we’ll win the fight – I genuinely believe it.”
Despite the blanket support for Barker’s challenge there has been a dissenting voice or two, most notably Frank Warren, the promoter telling Boxing Monthly that the fight is a bad idea because, ‘He’ll get beat…Some promoters make these overseas fights as a source of TV income…If I handled Barker I’d be looking at the Macklin fight. Matthew is coming off a good performance in Germany [against Felix Sturm]. Promoted right that could be massive.’
“Course”, laughed Barker when asked if he disagrees with this assessment, “especially when it is the fight I’ve been after all this time. Don’t get me wrong, I want to fight Macklin down the road but he’s got a rematch with Sturm coming up – I wish him all the best for that. That statement was absolutely ridiculous. How can you compare the two? I asked Matchroom for Martinez so how could I turn it down just because it means travelling?
“He is a tough fighter, deservedly where he is in the pound-for-pound rankings but I’ve studied him, what he does wrong and also what his opponents do wrong. They’re good fighters but kept getting the tactics wrong. I’ve got a game plan that I am sure will work. If I get things off to a tee I’m winning this fight so why not take it?
“Martinez will be surprised by my hand speed, I believe I can match him for it, and I’m quick on my feet, quite elusive, so where he thinks he’ll have advantages he’ll see that I am a match for him – I will surprise him.”
Barker’s last contest saw him register a win over Domenico Spada on April 30th to pick up the vacant European crown. Although critical of himself at the time, the 2002 Commonwealth gold medalist feels that the decision victory, not to mention twelve rounds in the bank, was perfect preparation for a world title tilt.
“Looking back, I am happy. It put me in good stead. If I had knocked him out early, which was always unlikely when you look at Spada, then the preparation wouldn’t have been as good. Getting those rounds under my belt was crucial. I know I’m ready,” he insisted.
“I feel strong, mature and have a new buzz about myself. I think I’m going to pull out a massive shock. I’m not delusional like other fighters and put up a front to build up a fight, I know I can win this.”
This time last year there were worrying rumors that we had seen the last of Barker, that his niggling hip injury may force him into premature retirement, especially when he was forced to withdraw from a September showdown with Macklin. There were dark days in store for the stylist, one or two of them saw him question his future.
“There were times when I wouldn’t have believed I would get this chance,” marveled Barker. “I thought my world had caved in. I was devastated when I pulled out the big fight with Macklin. I really wanted that one. I thought it was the end of the world and that things would be tough. I stayed positive, put in the hard work, kept my enthusiasm and stayed determined, it worked out.”
Martinez is riding high at the moment, his fine form began in earnest with a draw against Kermit Cintron and a narrow loss to Paul Williams in 2009 followed by wins over Kelly Pavlik, Williams and Serhiy Dzinziruk, he also holds two massive triumphs over Richard ‘The Secret’ Williams, travelling to the UK both times to see off the Stockwell stylist. Proof if needed that a reverse is not the end of your career, you can hit the top when in your thirties and, more importantly, maintain at that level.
“Course you can,” agreed Barker when asked if fledgling pros can take inspiration from Martinez’s late bloom. “He lost to [Antonio] Margarito after seventeen fights but kept plugging away, travelling the world and producing the goods. It is not nice to lose but you can get past it and to do what he is doing at thirty-six is fantastic.”
A good ticket seller, the undefeated contender hopes to take a group of local fans to New Jersey’s famous Boardwalk Hall, however he is aware that it may be hard to bring over casual punters due to Carl Froch’s Super Six final encounter with Andre Ward taking place at the same venue four weeks later.
“It is hard to gauge, really. There is a lot of buzz around it but there’s not a lot of money out there these days and it is a big bundle for some – I’m sure some of the Barnet crowd will make it over there. A lot of fans might wait for Carl’s fight but there’ll be a few barmy army fans out there.”
The 29-year-old looked worryingly out-of-sorts in his last meeting with southpaw opposition, a point’s win over France’s Affif Belghecham last April. Barker, though, feels that his final rounds fade was understandable given the circumstances.
“Not at all,” his answer to my question of whether the fight was indicative of a problem with portsiders. “I think I fight better against southpaws. In the first few rounds I was tearing him apart but me and [trainer] Tony Sims know what happened late in that fight and why it happened.”
“I didn’t run during training,” his explanation. “It was down to my hip injury. But I got twelve rounds out. That was a success to be honest even though he wasn’t the greatest opponent. I know that I can grind out a result. I took more positives from that than the Spada fight. Look at the early rounds and you see that.”
Martinez, 47-2-2 (26), is an entirely different kettle of carp, there can be no late fade, no unforced errors and no let up. It is likely to be Darren’s toughest night of boxing; he may have to play the matador to the Argentine bull.
“I think it may be the other way around”, stressed the 23-0 (14) fighter, “because he is aggressive but on the back foot. I don’t want to give too much away, it probably is a case of being a bit of a matador, not leaving my chin open for his counters and sticking to my own game. I know what I’m going to do. I know this is my opportunity.”
Sims has a big role to play. Indeed, Tony brought Darren back into the sport after the dark months surrounding his brother’s death, the coach has been a constant friend to his charge as well as orchestrating his recent run.
“Tony studies boxing like you can’t imagine. We sit down and watch hours of Martinez, it was so obvious what I had to do with my attributes and that I’d have to match him for hand speed,” he said before turning his attention to a possible victory.
“It will be unbelievable. I have dedicated my life to this since I was a twelve-year-old boy. A lot of people have been on this journey with me, family and other people, and even though they’re tremendously proud of me already this would be the icing on the cake. It has been a long road, some ups and downs, blood, sweat and tears, but this would cap it all off.”
Eddie Hearn has also played a key role, Mick Hennessy laid the foundations for Barker’s success before Hearn actively sought to obtain Darren’s services, believing that the former amateur star would be one of the jewels in Matchroom’s boxing crown.
“Matchroom are unbelievable, as a company and as people. It is a delight to work with them. There are a couple of friendships there as well because Eddie and me had a great time in New York. They’re not pushing me into anything, they listen to me, ask me how I see things going and we work things out.”
Barker versus Macklin remains atop many British boxing wish lists; the two men traded bards last year, they have since appeared together as Sky pundits and have pledged to net world titles before meeting to decide who is the UK’s best 160lber. Both men have told me that should they win world belts the meeting will be a domestic bonanza.
“I said before that I hope Macklin pulls it off, if I do it then we have a blockbuster. Imagine us both having a first defence that is also a unification fight against a fellow Briton, that hasn’t happened for a while. It would be huge, a Stamford Bridge job,” he enthused.
“We both have the mutual respect there, we’re not just talking about it for ourselves, we know the British boxing public want the fight so we’re both trying to make it. I respect Matthew, I am sure he respects me – we’ll both give the fans what they deserve.”
Talk of a WBA/WBC all-British title bout rests on in-ring action; both men need to overcome class international opposition before any national issues are ironed out. For now, though, the future lies in foreign countries – Barker only has eyes for Martinez.
“I’m not even looking at what if and worst case scenarios, I’m looking at my strengths and his weaknesses and seeing a winning plan,” his final thoughts on the Martinez challenge.
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